How do you best commemorate a brutal massacre which took place 200 years ago, claimed the lives of 18 people and injured hundreds more? All these years later the events which took place on the 16th August 1819 at St Peter’s Field in Manchester still make horrific reading.
Thousands of people, estimated at more than 60,000, had marched from across Lancashire and gathered to listen to speeches from famous orators, including Henry Hunt, all guests of the Manchester Patriotic Union in the sunshine of St Peter’s Field. These were people who were hungry thanks to crippling food prices stemming from the Corn Laws; people who worked in appalling conditions in mills for very little pay; soldiers who had returned from the Napoleonic wars to find no jobs and no food; people who had lost their jobs thanks to new machinery, greedy factory owners and the ‘Industrial Revolution’. Families came to the event dressed in white as a sign of their peaceful intentions; brought picnics to eat together as they listened to the speeches advocating political and parliamentary reform and greater suffrage. There were no demands for food or better pay they just wanted greater representation in parliament – their voices to be heard, their chance to vote. Shockingly at that point Manchester had no political representation in parliament.
Deemed to be ‘northern radicals’ and judged to be a threat by local magistrates – the sheer numbers of the crowd made the magistrates feel they had no choice but to act to put a stop to the demonstration. As the meeting began the Manchester & Salford Yeomanry were sent to arrest some off these ‘radical’ orators and charged into the crowd. In their rush to make their arrests, 2-year-old William Fildes was knocked out of his mothers’ arms and became the first victim of the violence that day. The 15th Hussars followed, mounted on horses and, instructed to disperse the now terrified crowd of thousands, charged with their sabres drawn. Half an hour of terror and blood, screaming and suffering ensued as the Hussars charged through the crowds slashing with their sabres indiscriminately. Men, women and children slashed in the back by sabres as they tried to escape- the brutality of the Hussars that day has not diminished despite the passing of 200 years.
18 people died – men, women and children. Many hundreds were injured in what is remembered as the most brutal and bloody event of the 19th century, but now seen as the starting point for real democracy in this country and eventual voting rights for all – universal suffrage.
Lancashire rose tiles on the floor of the town hall extension – 18 with red centres containing the names of the fallen and a small plaque on the side of the Radisson Hotel, once Manchester’s Free Trade Hall, have been the only memorials to the tragedy of that day in the city. What is even harder to believe is that the event does not feature in the history curriculum taught in schools and remains a little-known atrocity. Thanks to a 2018 film by writer and director Mike Leigh, the massacre began to gain more prominence and it was decided that to mark the 200th anniversary of that fateful day Manchester would build a monument commemorating the lives lost.
Designed by artist Jeremy Deller and built on the site of St Peter’s Field the sculpture has 11 concentric steps leading to a speaker’s podium. Each layer contains names of those who died and towns that took part in addition to commemorating the date. It is designed for interaction and is a striking feature on the land outside the Manchester Central building. The design has not been without its own controversy and featured no official unveiling due to ongoing disputes with disability groups about the lack of disabled access to the monument.
It stands to remind us all of the sacrifice of 18 ordinary people who simply wanted to have their voices heard in parliament. A violent and brutal quelling of their spirit but one that ultimately led to reform in the parliamentary system across the country. Sadly, part of the sculpture reminds you that such acts of violence are not consigned to the past with similar acts of brutality still taking place across the world.
Whatever your politics no one can deny that the outcome of what happened that day 200 years ago still resonates in the city of Manchester and beyond. We need to all stand and remember and try to ensure that no one suffers or witnesses the brutality and horror seen on that day ever again.
But sadly a momentary glance at the television news or a morning read of your chosen newspaper will inevitably feature scenes of human suffering and anguish across the world. Massacres continue to take place; regimes attempt to stifle independent thinking and control what they judge to be ‘radicals’; men, women and children continue to die. Violence, atrocities, genocide – the world never changes, people never learn.
Ghislaine Howard, ‘a painter of powerful and expressive means’ chanced to be in London on 7/7/2005. Although not involved directly in the bombings, on returning home she felt compelled to make some sort of response to the events of that day. Her initial attempts came to nothing and it was only a year later in July 2006, that seeing comparative imagery and film footage of that day, that she decided to make a small 6” by 8” painting of one of the iconic news images. She then realised that this simple act could not stand alone as each morning brought fresh images of some other world event into her home. As these small panels mounted up in her studio, they were seen by a curator who immediately sensed that this private response to world events should be seen publicly and in due course 365 of the paintings were exhibited at Imperial War Museum North.
‘The impulse to make them is deeply rooted in my work as a whole, but really they have grown from an increasing sense of desperation at recent events and a need to address the disposability of the terrible but often so beautiful and ambiguous images that arrive daily thought the door . . .’
She has continued to create the striking and haunting images of warfare, crime and suffering - one a day – ever since.
As the anniversary of the Peterloo massacre approached she felt compelled once more to produce her response to what took place. Her interpretation of the horror and the suffering of that day featured in an exhibition ‘Towards an Impossible Painting’ held as part of the weekend of commemorations on the 200th anniversary of the tragic events in St Peter’s Field.
The exhibition, co-curated by art historian Michael Howard, was held in the Greater Manchester Chamber basement space on Deansgate. It featured a number of paintings from the 365 Series and other responses to events across the world, including the ongoing situation in Hong Kong. Central to her project was the study and re-interpretation of images from the past, including paintings, prints, photographs and film. From these, Ghislaine hoped to find a suitable means of producing a painting that could seen as be a credible response to the events at St. Peter’s Field.
The final painting came as a surprise - not a large, monumental statement in the manner of Goya or Picasso - but a single small painting of a child’s pink sandal seen in the aftermath of some now-forgotten event. It makes a poignant connection with the words of the radical reformer Samuel Bamford, who was present at St Peter’s Field on that fateful day in 1819:
‘Over the whole field were strewed caps, bonnets, hats, shawls and shoes…’
How do you commemorate such an event? Maybe that isn’t important as long as we ensure that we never forget.
For more images of the Peterloo Memorial pay a visit to our gallery